The NYT Ship of Fools: Rodenbeck (PCP2) Reviews Pollack (PCP1)

I recently posted on the way the NYT packages discussions of the Middle East. Now we get a close look at how it packages book reviews. Below is a review of a book by Ken Pollack offering a grand strategy for the US to contribute significantly to resolving the Middle East conflict. It seems like a flawed book in many ways, but hardly in the terms in which the chosen reviewer critiques it. The reviewer is Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East correspondent for The Economist. It’s a case of washing away PCP1 with a dose of PCP2, rather than balancing it with a more sober appraisal of the situation (HSJP)

For a more valuable critique, see Michael Rubin’s review in the New York Sun. Thank civil society for multiple sources of opinion. Thank the NYT for sheltering you from painful realities, and loading up its pages with writers from the ship of fools.

War and Peace

Published: August 22, 2008

Back in 2002, I ran into one of the Brookings Institution’s top Middle East hands at the inaugural session of the United States-Islamic World Forum, a now annual event that Brookings sponsors jointly with the government of Qatar. “How’s it going?” I asked, expecting to hear about clashing misperceptions across the cultural divide. “Good,” came the gruff reply. “They’re beginning to realize that they are the problem.”

A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East
By Kenneth M. Pollack
539 pp. Random House. $30
First Chapter: ‘A Path Out of the Desert’ (August 24, 2008)

Reading this big, ambitious book by Kenneth M. Pollack, who is the head of research at Brookings’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, it is hard not to wish that what he refers to as Washington’s “policy community” would more often realize that they are the problem.

That’s pretty amazing. If he had written, “they are part of the problem,” okay. But “they are the problem.” That’s pure MOS: Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome — as if there were no problem besides our bungled attempts to solve the problem. It’s a little like saying all health problems are iatrogenic. There are no diseases; it’s the doctors’ fault.

It would have been nice, for instance, had Pollack himself thought harder before arguing, in scholarly papers and his widely read 2002 book, “The Threatening Storm,” that America had “no choice” but to invade Iraq. That ostensibly sober appraisal, coming from a former C.I.A. analyst, Clinton official and self-described liberal, arguably added more gravitas to the shrill cries for war than any other voice.

Pollack has long since confessed to having been wrong about Iraq. “A Path Out of the Desert” includes other mea culpas. “There has been far too little asking the people of the region themselves what they thought and what they wanted,” he ruminates at one point, though the book offers slim evidence of his having pursued this advice. While the administration that Pollack served gets some light wrist-­slapping, it is the following eight years of Bush policy that he calls “breathtakingly arrogant, ignorant and reckless.”

Rudenbeck speaks as if it’s a) clear how to consult the people of the region, b) that they are clear on what they want, and c) they’ll give you a straight answer whether they are clear or not.

Many of Pollack’s other judgments are as sound as is this criticism of the Bush administration. Since most of the post-cold-war world has stabilized, democratized and prospered, it is probably correct to suggest, as he does, that America should commit itself to helping the messy Middle East come up to par.

Now there’s an breathtaking piece of ignorant and reckless arrogance. Who says they want democracy? And who is they? And even if they say they want it, who says they (and here I’m speaking of the key players, the alpha males) are willing to make the sacrifices necessary for democracy (like giving up honor-killings or self-help justice). What a mealy-mouthed homogenized view of post-war culture Rodenbeck offers up with this description of post-war culture and the [obvious] conclusions he thinks we should draw from it.

His proposal of a Grand Strategy to achieve this, which is to say a generation-long effort of a scale and intensity similar to America’s engagement with Europe after World War II, is challenging but not irrational, given the world’s growing dependency on Middle Eastern oil.

If this is what Pollack says, it represents classic PCP: they’re like us, and if we’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to us. The idea of a Marshall Plan for the Arab world that doesn’t address the differences between post-War Germany and Japan on the one hand and the Arab world on the other, is not only simplistic, it’s destructive. Look at the encouraging results of having petro-trillions on the moderation of Saudi Arabia. And the Palestinians have gotten probably three times as much money per-capita in real dollars as either the Germans or the Japanese after World War II, and it’s had such a salutary effect on their political culture.

And Pollack is right to say that violence and tyranny are not hard-wired into Islam, and to conclude that the threat of Islamist terror has been overblown.

Huh? Not hardwired? Has he read the Qur’an? The Hadith? The Legal tradition? And on what ground — other than hope addiction — can we conclude that the threat of Islamist terror is overblown? PCP all the way.

Of course, if your “grand strategy” is to buy your way out of the problem, then you need to believe that the rocks you’re headed for are just an illusion.

He is also right that internal unrest in Middle Eastern states is quite likely to be a strategic threat, and that this danger will not pass until they manage to produce better schools, more opportunities for youth, wider social justice and more inclusive, accountable government. He is correct, too, in describing the region’s current regimes as singularly awful, and even in admitting that George Bush showed unwonted acuity when he called for draining the swamps of extremism by promoting reform.

The argument weakens when Pollack tries to prescribe just what America can do to cure the Middle East. Much of his suggested treatment consists of vague outlines and policy homilies. Out of nearly 500 pages, very few describe concrete measures for how to achieve such things as spreading democracy or upgrading education in the face of governments that mistrust reform and peoples that mistrust America. Among other things, he proposes to increase military aid to friendly regimes. This, he says, can create a kind of golden leash that makes governments more compliant to American wishes.

But surely, one can’t help gasping, the last thing more guns will bring is political reform. And surely, those Arabs are not so dumb that they don’t read this stuff. Elsewhere, he suggests tying aid to Egypt to the lifting of the country’s notorious emergency law. Perhaps he is unaware that Congress has already tried conditioning aid on reform, or that the Egyptians, who have grown skilled at circumventing tiresome Western admonishments, have already amended their constitution to incorporate “emergency” strictures under ordinary law. One is left with the impression that should a Democratic administration hire Pollack to try his Grand Strategy, he might soon be reduced to throwing “spaghetti against the wall” to “see if it sticks,” as he quotes a rueful Bush official describing that team’s effort to reform the Middle East.

So far, I agree with Rodenbeck’s critique. If indeed Pollack takes this position, it’s hopelessly naive.

Beyond the reform promotion agenda, which is the book’s main thrust, Pollack is surprisingly reticent about the most pressing current issues, namely how to get out of Iraq and what to do about Iran (though in recent op-ed essays he has made it clear that he worries about pulling out of Iraq too quickly). In fact, he simply sketches well-known policy options without passing judgment. And, sadly, this thick book’s thinness in ideas is not its only flaw.

Pollack raises loud alarms, for instance, over the Middle East’s high rates of population growth, urbanization and joblessness. Actually, these are decades-old trends. He fails to note that population growth rates have plunged in recent years. Some scholars even assert that this phase of “demographic transition,” in which there is a relatively high ratio of working-age people to young or old dependents, should accelerate the region’s economic growth just as it did America’s in the late 19th century, and East Asia’s more recently.

Yeah. Of course, that would mean that there’s a similar work ethic, rather than a cultural prejudice against work as the task of slaves and fools. The statistics on manufacturing are eloquent, even breathtaking. Manufacturing exports from Israel (population 6 million), are about $24 billion per year… Total Arab world (population 240 million) manufacturing exports are about $19 billion.

The assumption that all cultures are equal, that they are all equally (or somewhat equally) inclined to “rational” positive-sum behavior, that economic stimulus packages will work to some extent rather than (as they have with the Palestinians) backfire by empowering further a predatory elite — all this is classic PCP. As the expression goes, “to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” To the Westerner with a successful economy, everything looks like an economic problem.

Pollack commits errors that, despite his years in the corridors of power and some 70 pages of footnotes, betray a lack of genuine intimacy with his subject. It is not true, as he asserts, that education in the Persian Gulf emirates is largely private. Nor is it true, any longer, that virtually the only foreign investment in Arab countries goes toward pumping more oil: real estate, tourism, banking, telecoms and even heavy industry now lure investors, too.

It is an outdated generalization to state that “Arab bureaucracies . . . create interminable delays with customs regulations, inspections and other red tape.” Try telling that to Dubai Ports World, a company that runs 45 container terminals in 29 countries, or to the operators of the giant, state-of-the-art transshipment hubs in Egypt and Morocco that are set to dominate Mediterranean trade. It is even more misleading to assert that “the Arab regimes have implicitly or explicitly backed a range of terrorist groups.” Pray, which Arab governments does he mean, and which groups is he talking about?

Huh? How about the widespread Arab support for the Palestinian leadership. No, that’s too easy. What about Saudi Arabia’s exportation of Wahhabi ideology? Or is that not explicitly terrorist enough? What about the Arab League’s firm support of Sudan’s genocide in Darfur? I assume that Rodenbeck is operating from the position that Arab governments know that terrorism is bad for them and oppose it publicly; but that’s hardly the end of the story. Any terrorism against Israel is praised; and often enough, even though it’s not in their long-term interest, governments will support for terrorist groups. Indeed, for most of them, good demopaths that they are, terrorism is only when their ox is gored.

Pollack also shows a shaky grasp of history. We know that the Ottoman Empire declined and fell, but to have endured for five centuries, and for half those as the biggest state in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, does not make the Ottomans “unsuccessful.” Elsewhere he tells us sagely that “over time, the stagnation of the Arab economies has created considerable poverty,” as if there were no poor Arabs before, and as if one of the most startling modern examples of mass impoverishment was not the Clinton-era sanctions on Iraq, which destroyed its middle class and set the stage for postwar chaos.

Now there’s a Chomskyite sound byte: Clinton destroyed the Iraqi middle class? Saddam’s regime had nothing to do with this? Eight years of war against Iran? Ruthless repression of any dissent? Or is Rodenbeck’s view of a middle class merely those who can handle technology and trade, not people who can think and speak and innovate for themselves?

America gets off rather lightly in general, in Pollack’s account, compared with the sad Arabs whom we must help to be like us. We are told, for instance, that the United States only grudgingly became involved in the grisly Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when it nobly undertook to reflag oil tankers in order to protect the flow of oil. No mention here of Donald Rumsfeld’s back-slapping with Saddam Hussein or the supply of satellite intelligence to him or the exchange of American weapons to Iran for hostages — all of which helped prolong the slaughter.

This is peanuts compared with the forces in the Muslim world that drove that eight-year, insane, World-War-I-like slaughter of (eventually) child soldiers: the Shiite-Sunni split; the anti-Zionist paranoia of both sides; the culture of honor and death that sacrificed lives for honor; the political culture of rule or be ruled; the unregulated ambitions of war-mongering rulers; the inability of the “citizenry” to speak up… Please, let’s not get masochistic when there’s so much sadism to deal with.

keen's book
This is the cover to Sam Keen’s Faces of the Enemy. The main picture is an Iraqi representation of Khomeini. Inside his malevalent eye is a Star of David.

Pollack seems oddly unaware of history’s motivating forces. To assert that “what triggers revolutions, civil wars and other internal unrest is psychological factors, particularly feelings of extreme despair,” is plain silly. The Boston Tea Party could not have been prevented by Prozac.

Good point. De Tocqueville showed a century and a half ago that the French were the wealthiest country in Europe when they revolted; that it was disappointed expectations for reform that spurred revolutionary ardor, not poverty and despair.

On the other hand, comparing the motivation for 18th century revolutionary ardor with what motivates the Muslim world in this global era, when their self-image is so humiliating in the mirror of the internet age is a classic piece of cognitive egocentrism, a category error.

Similarly, he ascribes feelings to broad categories of Middle Easterners, devoid of any context or explanation. They are “angry populations” who suffer “inchoate frustration” and “a pathological hatred of the status quo.” We repeatedly hear of “Arab rage at Israel” and “Arab venom for Israel.” Nowhere is there a hint that such attitudes might bear some relation to the plight of the Palestinians, the agony of military defeat or the humiliation of life under Israeli occupation.

Now there’s a fine piece of PCP. Arab hatred of Israel is, according to this “read,” if not condoned, certainly not irrational. There are good reasons for their feelings.

Let’s be clear here. When we speak about “Arab venom for Israel,” we’re not talking about resentment or anger; we’re talking about paranoid hatreds and genocidal rages. So any attempt to “explain” them needs to take into account their pathologically violent nature; and any effort to de-pathologize them, to contextualize them is a concession to sentiments that any civil society cannot tolerate.

But, in fact, this is the core of Rodenbeck’s approach: just as the Clinton administration is responsible for the collapse of the Iraqi middle class, so Israel is responsible for Arab hatred. Let’s look at his list of issues whose significance Pollack ignored, according to Rudenbeck.

The plight of the Palestinians… In what way are the Palestinians less free than the inhabitants of Iraq before the US invasion, or the inhabitants of Syria, of the Palestinians in Lebanon? What distinguishes — in real terms — the plight of the Palestinians from the plight of so many other Arabs and Muslims abused by the ruling elite? And — if we’re going to talk about matters of solidarity and justice — what makes the Palestinians worthy sources of raging resentment rather than, say, the genuinely distressed Darfurian Muslims. The Arab pain at the “plight of the Palestinians” is the demopaths delight. It has nothing to do with their concern for the Palestinians — on the contrary, the more they suffer the better — and everything to do with the pain of humiliation, and the desire to regain the losses of Dar al Islam, to re-subject the Jews to Dhimmi status in the land. It’s about 300 million Arabs being repeatedly defeated by a few million Israelis.

the agony of military defeat…: That’s an amazing piece of psychological condescension. Losing is so agonizing to the Arabs, their lost honor so precious, that any kind of violence is preferable to accepting defeat and moving on. Rodenbeck has no standards when it comes to the Arabs, only when it comes to Israel and the West. Classic Human Rights Complex. Note that it was precisely Germany and Japan’s acceptance of defeat that made it possible for the Marshall plan to work. You cannot graft a productive society on these kinds of hatred, as Germany’s experience after World War I illustrates; and it makes no sense for someone like Rodenbeck to excuse it.

or the humiliation of life under Israeli occupation… Like so many purveyors of PCP, Rodenbeck’s attitude towards honor-shame is, in his mind generous (I can empathize with their humiliation), and at the same time, “objectively” Dhimmi (accept their claims that whatever they consider an unbearable humiliation must cease). Here we have to choose between the Israeli claim that they cannot bear opening their borders to people who send over suicide terrorists, with the Palestinian claim that they find checkpoints unbearably humiliating. Only a moral and political fool would side with the Palestinians rather than tell them to get their act together and stop the suicide terror factories if they want the checkpoints to cease.

In fact, the book’s most salient distortions stem from Pollack’s protectiveness toward Israel. He makes some absurdly cockeyed assertions, like, “America’s support for Israel over the years has even been a critical element in winning and securing Arab allies.” He offers misleading false alternatives, declaring, for instance, that there is “absolutely no reason to believe that ending American support for Israel would somehow eliminate” the risk of Islamist zealots taking power and cutting oil exports. How about making aid to Israel, and not just to Arabs, conditional, or aiming at mitigating, rather than eliminating, such risks?

So Rodenbeck thinks that Israeli and Arab allies should be treated the same. Good PCP. He further dislikes Pollack’s formulation as the reductio ad absurdum of an argument he actually finds attractive: i.e., ending American support for Israel would mitigate the risk of Islamist zealots taking over and cutting oil exports. This, of course, overlooks the dynamics of that honor-shame culture for which previously Rodenbeck had shown such solicitude. As a Moroccan noted during the period when France fought America’s intervention in Iraq: “It’s a sign of French weakness. Everyone knows when you defend your enemies and attack your friends, it’s because you’re weak.” Good luck to the USA when they throw their Israeli allies into the maw of Arab rage.

Pollack makes a peculiarly acrobatic effort to prove that hostility to Israel is not a prime motivating factor behind militant jihadism, repeating this assertion no fewer than four times in two paragraphs. Has he not bothered to listen to Osama bin Laden’s addresses to the American people, where he said that what converted him from dreamer to murderous activist was Israeli bombs falling on Beirut in 1982?

Rodenbeck makes a category error here. He thinks that because Bin Laden says that, a) he really means it; and b) that because he hates Israel, he only hates the US because of its support for Israel. In fact, anyone who knows Bin Laden’s biography, knows that he was radicalized first by the Soviet invaion of Afghanistan in 1979. And if there was a Palestinian dimension to his Jihadi hatreds, it was his Palestinian guru, the apocalyptic and murderous Abdullah Yusuf Azzam who taught him a weaponized version of Sayed Qutb. And that means that Israel is only one — perhaps the most annoying — of Western entities to be destroyed. Occidens delendus est. The fantasy that the West can win Arab favor and soothe the Jihadi breast by sacrificing Israel is one of the major follies of our time, shared apparently by one of our presidential candidates. Rodenbeck belongs on the ship of fools.

Even more disingenuously, Pollack repeats the myth that Al Qaeda has never attacked Israel. One might argue that its bombings of synagogues in Djerba and Istanbul, and against Jewish targets in Casablanca, in which dozens of people died, were anti-Semitic rather than anti-Israeli. But the November 2002 attacks in Kenya were aimed specifically at Israeli tourists. Thirteen people, among them three Israelis, died in a resort hotel, and had the missiles fired simultaneously at an Israeli charter plane with 261 passengers aboard not missed, this would have been Al Qaeda’s goriest “success” since the twin towers. This may seem like nit-picking, particularly since Pollack is, after all, on the side of those who believe it is in America’s own interest to make peace between Israelis and Arabs, or at least to pretend to try.

Wow. He doesn’t have time to let us know what Pollack argues, but he’s got 134 words to give to a bizarre and meaningless tangent. So what if Al Qaeda attacks Israel? Their presence in Gaza is an even better point to make. To call this passage “nit-picking” is being generous.

What is troubling about Pollack’s view, which is fairly representative of his fellow liberal interventionists, who are likely to be in power soon, is its lack of clarity. Can’t we just admit that American support for Israel is strategically burdensome and is driven by the passion of several domestic constituencies rather than cold cost-benefit geopolitics?

Pure Walt-Mearsheimer… allegedly rational — cold cost-benefit — but objectively Dhimmi/European. A recipe for disaster based on appalling scholarship, but good enough for the Grey Lady (and presumably, the Economist).

Can’t we see that the temptation to intervene in places like the Middle East arises as much because “they” are weak as because “we” are just and noble? No matter what good will America’s “policy community” proclaims toward the Middle East, this mix of blinkered indulgence of Israel and disdain for the rest of the region, as well as a predilection for Wilsonian dreams over achievable goals, suggests we will remain in the wilderness for some time to come.

Can’t we see that the tempation to abandon our values and embrace a moral equivalence in which we cease to make any demands on the rest of the region to commit to the principles of civil society arises as much from because we can’t solve the problem the normal ways we solve problems elswhere in the world, as because the oil-producing states have us by the short-hairs. No matter what “cold cost-benefit analysis” the Walt-Mearsheimer school argues for, this mix of betraying a close and trusted ally for the sake of appeasing Arab “rage”, as well as a post-colonial tendency to blame Western imperialism for everything, suggests the wilderness will get considerably worse for some time to come.

That the NYT thinks that this is a good review of Pollacks book shows how far out of touch with reality their agenda-driven journalism has become. If they can demand thorough rewrites from John McCain, surely they could demand some serious work from Rodenbeck. Apparently not.

Alas for the West, betrayed by their own gate-keepers.

4 Responses to The NYT Ship of Fools: Rodenbeck (PCP2) Reviews Pollack (PCP1)

  1. Lorenz Gude says:

    “What is troubling about Pollack’s view, which is fairly representative of his fellow liberal interventionists, who are likely to be in power soon, is its lack of clarity.

    To your fisking of this passage I would add that Pollack is, along with Michael O’Hanlon the author of A War We Might Just Win published in the Times at the end of July 2007 which was the first time I saw any recognition that the surge was working in Iraq in a liberal outlet. I saw it at the time as a canny shot across the bows of the “Iraq is lost” crowd in Congress by the boys at Brookings. That’s what think tanks are for, right? Pollack seems to me to be pretty much a liberal interventionist which I find hard to distinguish from those evil monsters the dreaded ‘neocons.’ Roddenbeck astonishes me when he opines that this kind of liberal interventionism is about to come to power under Obama. I’d say it has been in power for the past 16 years and that it is far more realistic, as you imply elsewhere, to expect something quite different from an Obama administration.

  2. Eliyahu says:

    Rodenbeck tells us about the 5 centuries of the Ottoman empire but little or nothing about the history of Islam, jihad and dhimma. The Arab hatred for Israel is for him as if a post-1948 phenomenon, rather than being rooted in medieval Islamic Judeophobia. For instance, Rodenbeck seems unaware of the hadith appearing in several places and versions in the hadith literature that goes as follows, and is quoted in the Hamas covenant, Article 7:
    At Judgment Day, the Muslims will fight the Jews who will hide behind rocks and trees. The rocks and trees will cry out: O Muslim, a Jew is hiding behind me. Come kill him.
    Here we have a medieval statement of genocidal intent against the Jews, postponed to Judgement Day, to be sure. Rodenbeck and W-M are either unaware of such early Islamic sentiments or pretend not to know. Pollack too ought to confront this kind of traditional Muslim thinking, given a place of honor by contemporary Islamists.

    Likewise, there is reason to believe that the characteristic poverty of Arab lands without oil has much to do with Islam and its focus on honor-shame, domination, jihad, hates of non-Muslims [harbis and dhimmis, etc], suppression of freedom of thought, hatred of innovation, and of labor as the slave’s lot in life, etc. RL pointed out some of this problem but I think it is much too often overlooked.

    What I think we should avoid is identifying the Arabs and Islam with the East, the Orient, as such, because the East was prosperous and advanced in civilization before the Arab conquests. Likewise, Israel is not exactly Western, nor was Lebanon in its days of prosperity and relative freedom. The “stagnation of Arab economies” [Pollack’s words] began in the Middle Ages.

    Rodenbeck ought to be asked to explain why –if everything revolves around Israel– Sudan committed genocide on the southern [ not Darfuri!!] population for about 50 years off and on since Sudanese independence. Here I have to mention the British policy of giving Sudan independence as a unitary state in 1956, rather than as two states or more, or as a federal state. The UK created the situation in which the genocide took place, although they knew of the historic hostilities between north and south Sudan based on religious differences, enslavement, ghazwa, etc.

  3. Windy Wilson says:

    Yes, Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrom is it!

    Blaming everything on America IS like blaming all disease on doctors.
    My SIL is a doctor, AND a flaming leftist, and there is a non-zero chance she would understand the similarity and the scales would fall from her eyes.

    Yeah, right. Would anyone like a slice of flying pig?

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